Using inquiry-based learning to teach critical thinking

Inquiry-based learning promotes active learning through questioning and exploration. Learn how to use this student-centered teaching method in your class.
magnifying glass held over thinking brain

Teaching students critical thinking skills has been a challenge since the advent of the Internet. When every answer is a quick Google search away, getting students to go beyond Wikipedia can feel like an insurmountable barrier for today’s educators. 

In traditional teaching methods, the instructor typically asks the questions and the students provide the answers. Some educators are flipping that approach on its head though and allowing students to do the asking.

What is inquiry-based learning?

Inquiry-based learning is a student-centered teaching method promoting active learning through questioning, exploration, and collaboration. Rather than being passive recipients of information, students become investigators, actively seeking solutions to real-world problems or posing questions that guide their learning journey. Educator advocates of inquiry-based learning say it fosters critical thinking skills while giving students a deeper understanding of the subject matter with greater knowledge retention.

5E’s model of inquiry

  1. Engage: The teacher piques the students’ interest in a subject matter or topic in a way that encourages learners to activate their prior knowledge and devise questions or hypotheses about what they’d like to learn.
  2. Explore: The students actively explore a concept through a learning activity designed to challenge or expand upon a student’s prior assumptions.
  3. Explain: The students explain what they learned in the exploration stage, comparing ideas and observations with the teacher as well as with the rest of the class.
  4. Elaborate: Students either reinforce and expand previous knowledge or come to new conclusions based on the results of their exploration activity and discussion.
  5. Evaluate: Teachers evaluate what students have learned through formal and/or informal assessments.

Setting the stage for inquiry-based learning in your class

Find creative ways to spark curiosity

The foundation of a successful inquiry-based learning exercise lies in getting students to ask well-crafted and thought-provoking questions. Effectively stimulating curiosity is an art, and doing it well might take a bit of practice on your part. Ask yourself what assumptions your students might have about the topic you’ll be teaching, and try to present details that go against or beyond those assumptions. 

The goal isn’t to have them ask a simple yes/no question. You’ll want to present the material in a way that encourages inquiries beginning with “why,” “how,” or “what if?”

Inquiry-based learning is popular in science classes or fields of experimentation but can be used just as effectively to unpack a current event or explore a philosophical concept if the topic being explored generates excitement among your students.

Build a supportive learning community

Creating a supportive and collaborative learning environment is essential for inquiry-based learning. Professors should foster a culture where students feel comfortable expressing their thoughts, asking questions, and engaging in meaningful discussions. This can be achieved through small-group activities, peer collaboration, and open communication channels. Giving students the ability to submit questions anonymously will remove fear of embarrassment and encourage them to be more forthcoming. Establishing a sense of community within the classroom encourages students to take risks, share ideas, and actively contribute to the learning process.

Provide clear guidelines and expectations

While inquiry-based learning encourages student autonomy, clear guidelines and expectations are crucial to ensure a structured and productive learning experience. Professors should provide a roadmap outlining the inquiry process, including milestones, deadlines, and assessment criteria. Clearly communicating the learning objectives and expected outcomes helps students understand the purpose of the exercise and provides a framework for their exploration.

Use diverse learning resources and multiple media formats

Inquiry-based learning is all about exploring all aspects of a topic and challenging your learners’ assumed knowledge and preconceived beliefs. To encourage this exploration, you’ll want to include learning resources from a variety of sources with a variety of stances. To capture and maintain the interest of your class, you’ll also want to include multimodal learning resources that go beyond traditional textbooks.

News articles, case studies, videos, photographs, multimedia content, art, and real-world examples that align with your topic can all be used to expose students to a broader spectrum of information, generating inquiry while enriching their understanding of the subject matter.

How to facilitate guided inquiry sessions

Guided inquiry sessions strike a balance between providing structure and allowing students to explore independently. You can initiate the inquiry process with a brief introduction to the topic and expectations for the exercise. This approach ensures that students receive the necessary guidance while still maintaining the autonomy to drive their learning.

Encourage reflection and metacognition

Inquiry-based learning goes beyond acquiring facts; it emphasizes the development of critical thinking skills and metacognition. To encourage metacognition, you can incorporate reflection activities such as journaling to prompt students to evaluate their learning process, challenges, and growth. When students become self-aware about their learning process, they begin to identify how they learn most effectively, which promotes lifelong learning skills that extend beyond the classroom.

Embrace education technology

Technology can and should be used to enhance the inquiry-based learning experience where appropriate. While you don’t want students solely relying on Google to formulate questions or provide answers, technology does give you and your class access to a wealth of information and collaborative tools. You can use multimedia resources and interactive content to complement classroom discussions and extend learning beyond traditional boundaries. You can also leverage game-based learning tools like REACHUM to evaluate learning outcomes. Integrating technology aligns the learning experience with real-world expectations and offers students the ability to connect their newfound knowledge to life after college.

Find creative ways to assess learning outcomes

Traditional assessment methods may not fully capture the depth of subject matter understanding achieved through inquiry-based learning. Professors should explore creative assessment strategies such as project presentations, portfolios, and peer evaluations. These methods not only provide a more holistic view of student learning, but they also align with the dynamic and interactive nature of inquiry-based approaches.


Inquiry-based learning challenges the traditional paradigms of teaching and learning in a way that promotes critical thinking, problem-solving, and a passion for lifelong learning among students. Professors can assign inquiry-based learning activities to empower students to become active participants in their educational journey. As the educational landscape continues to evolve, inquiry-based learning guides professors toward a pedagogical approach that not only imparts knowledge, but also nurtures the skills essential for success after college.